Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Corn pudding

There's nothing that says summer quite like corn. Corn on the cob, scorched with grill marks, dripping with butter. Husks that remind me of bark stripped off a tree. Corn silk that seems to get stuck everywhere, from your teeth to the counter where you've been working.

And isn't it a beautiful vegetable? Just right for late-afternoon photo shoots.

I've written about my love of cornbread before, but this time it's all about straight-up corn, before it's been ground into meal. This is a different kind of love, friends.

Really, it makes sense that we'd come across corn sooner or later. There's so much historical weight attached to corn. It was the crop that Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant after a particularly harsh first winter. Native Americans traditionally grew maize, squash, and beans together as the Three Sisters crops. And apparently it was also the crop that saved the lives of the first Virginians (once they stopped being stubborn and decided to learn how to farm). Plus, corn is native to North America, so it was a revolutionary crop to those European colonists.

So why couldn't the colonial Virginians come up with a better way of serving corn?

It's a promising recipe. "Take six large, tender, milky Ears of Corn. Split the Corn down the Center of each Row; cut off the Top and then scrape the Cob well." I dare you not to steal a few pieces of corn once you've cut it off the cob. Then you mix it up with flour, salt and pepper, eggs, and milk, and bake it into a steaming pudding. When it comes out of the oven, brown and bubbling from the butter you put on top, it's hard not to dig right in. You eagerly anticipate that first taste.

When I was young, sometimes we would have microwaveable meals for dinner. Lean Cuisine chicken marsala, Stouffer's creamed spinach. Sometimes my parents just wanted to round out the meal, so they'd heat up a packaged side dish. That's fine. Sometimes it's all you can manage.

One of the dishes in regular microwave rotation was Stouffer's corn souffle. It was kind of a spongy pudding made with corn, light and airy. And guess what, friends.

I've replicated that corn souffle. Except instead of the 15 minutes it took to heat up the plastic container, this took a good 1 1/2 hours. And a historical cookbook.

It's not to say that this is a bad corn souffle. It's light and airy and corny and accompanies other dishes quite well. But as Josh so eloquently put it, it's like "corn with mush in between," a cross between straight-up corn and cornbread. We both would have preferred to eat one or the other.

So, because it seems worth it to start a tally:

historical corn recipes: 0
dashed culinary expectations: 2

Maybe I just need to stop expecting so much from corn. It's just a vegetable, after all.

Corn Pudding
(adapted from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery)

4 ears of corn
2 eggs
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cups milk
salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp butter, cubed

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Shuck the corn and slice each row down the middle (it doesn't take as long as it sounds, but you will get splashed). Slice the kernels off the cob. It's okay if you don't get the whole kernel in one go. Put all the sliced corn into a large bowl.

Beat the eggs together in a separate bowl and mix with the sliced corn. Add the flour, milk, and a dash of salt and pepper. Beat to combine.

Grease a souffle dish (or an oven-safe dish that's about 4 inches deep). Pour in the pudding mixture, and top with dots of the butter. Bake for 60 - 75 minutes, or until the pudding is puffed, brown, and bubbling on top.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How to keep your own hearth fires burning

Even though I've thoroughly distanced colonial cooking from its original hearth application, I thought it would be useful to look at some of the tools used in hearth cooking. You know, in case you had a hankering to put your fireplace to good use.

1. Of course, you couldn't get anywhere without your fireplace. Technically, this is the "hearth" of "hearth cooking," the heart and soul of any good gentlewoman's house. However, today we tend to refer to just that brick-lined area in front of the fireplace as the hearth.

(Plus a lovely costumed interpreter back in her college years.)

2. Then you need something to get those hearth fires going: firewood. Make sure it's dry and that you build the fire the right way (i.e. don't smoke out the inhabitants of the house).

3. You'll also need an iron swinging crane with hooks to hold your kettles over the fire. The swinging part is key, so you can pull the whole system out instead of constantly reaching into the fireplace.

4. Just in case you're not an expert fire-starter, it's helpful to have a bellows. This allows you to pump air into the fire to encourage the flames.

5. Now for the tools that we still use today: a peel, for shoveling hot coals onto the hearth (more on that in a bit); a broom, for sweeping cold ashes from the hearth; and a poker.

Of course, you'll start your fire very early in the morning, so you'll be sure to have hot water and enough coals for cooking breakfast. Fires sadly take much longer to create heat than electric or gas ovens and stoves.

6. Okay. Now that your fire is good and hot, it's time for the fun part: cooking!

You'll heat up water in one of your kettles. This is helpful for washing the dishes or really anytime you need hot water. (But remember to set the water over the fire early in the morning, so you're not caught with a kettle of cold water.)

The skillet is pretty self-explanatory: a good tool for frying and sauteeing. You'll rest your hot pans on one of the trivets. The toasting fork is for, well, toasting stuff.

When you want to bake something small like a pie, or you're working on a slow-cooking stew, your Dutch oven comes in handy. This is the original Dutch oven (with legs!). After you've spread hot coals on the hearth (with your handy peel), you set the Dutch oven on top, place your food inside, and cover. Then you arrange more hot coals on top--the rim keeps them from falling off. Make sure to recover with hot coals every so often so the temperature stays even.

7. For keeping skillets directly over heat for a long period of time, something like a gridiron (also called a spider) is particularly nice to have.

8. If you want to roast a chicken, you'll need andirons (which we still generally see in fireplaces today) to support a spit.

9. Or you could use a tin kitchen. The tin kitchen sits on the hearth with the open side facing the fire, so the heat is reflected from the closed side of the kitchen. The meat turns on a spit within.

10. Finally, if you're ready to do your weekly bread baking, you'll want to fire up (heh) your bread oven, which is most likely a beehive-like hollow next to the fireplace. Make sure to build a big fire inside the oven so the logs have time to burn down to ashes. The inner bricks will heat up enough to bake bread.

And those are just the basics. We haven't even begun to discuss how to do the washing up.

It's posts like these that fill me with conflicting feelings. For one, I have a hard time believing that one summer I could use all these tools like I was in my own kitchen. Never a second thought about spreading hot coals over the hearth. For another, it makes me incredibly thankful for my gas oven and stove.

I know I occasionally conclude my posts with an appreciative statement like that, but really, this time I mean it. To have to wait only 20 minutes for my oven to preheat, instead of the several hours it might take for the logs to burn down into hot coals? It gives me a whole new appreciation for those colonial cooks.

Dutch ovenBrass kettlesSkilletTrivetToasting forkCrane, gridiron, andirons, fireplace toolsTin kitchenBread ovenBellows.

Monday, May 14, 2012

To butter shrimps

Last weekend it felt like summer. 80 degrees, not too humid (so, more of an ideal summer than a real one), sunny. I spent Saturday afternoon setting up my tomato and pea plants outside, in a sheltered spot with plenty of sun. Josh and I took our time at the farmers' market, grilled some corn quesadillas, had a long, lazy lunch at our favorite bakery on Sunday. I almost believed that school was actually over, that we had nothing more pressing than figuring out what to eat for dinner.

Of course, then reality set in. Those last few weeks of school are always so agonizing, don't you think? Summer's just within reach--except it's a little too far away.

So maybe it was masochistic of me to cook shrimp for Sunday dinner. Shrimp always reminds me of summer--really, any seafood does--and while I was making it, I definitely forgot that the next day would bring teaching, not sleeping in. The kitchen was a little too hot from the stove, so I wore a tank top and jeans, sipping ice water as I worked. Physically it felt like summer...dinner tasted like why is it still only May?

These are the questions Josh and I ask each other, at least three times a day now.

In the meantime, I torture myself exquisitely with shrimp.

There's actually very little butter in this recipe, despite what the name suggests. The sunny hue comes from beaten egg yolks, which set in thin swirls to make a sort of egg-drop soup studded with shrimp. Thanks to the vagueness of colonial recipes, I'm not sure if that's what the soup should have looked like, or if it should have taken on a thicker consistency like avgolemono. Either way, it's rich and delicious and ridiculously easy to make.

I was surprised that the colonial Virginians ate shrimp, but after doing a bit of research it made sense. John Smith, recorder of the earliest European explorations in Virginia, wrote a lot about how the rivers and waters teemed with fish,
"lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for the want of nets we attempted to catch them with our frying pans.”
The frying pan bit is, well, ridiculous, but it says a lot about the availability of fish that they even tried to catch them that way. It's no wonder that colonists touted Virginia as a veritable Eden of abundance. And in his list of fish the colonists recognized, Smith lists "shrimps" along with sturgeon and oysters. So the colonists were eating shrimp right from the beginning.

Now, of course, shrimp are much more dear--I shudder to recall how much these cost. It's sobering to think about how much fishing has changed since the 17th century. But these were worth it. For just a few hours, it really felt like summer.

Buttered Shrimp
(adapted from The Williamsburg Cookbook)

1 1/3 - 1 1/2 lbs shrimp, deveined
1 1/3 cup white wine, divided
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp nutmeg
4 egg yolks
lemon slices for garnish

Rinse the shrimp and place in a large pot, along with 1 cup white wine, the butter, and nutmeg. Cook over medium-high heat until liquid boils and the shrimp is starting to turn pink (the butter should be melted--this is the colonial way to tell if the timing's right). Now beat the egg yolks together with the last 1/3 cup white wine, and pour into the pot. Give the liquid a good stir and cook for a few minutes longer, until the shrimp is pink and the liquid has thickened slightly. Ladle the soup and shrimp into bowls, and garnish with slices of lemon.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mount Vernon

About a month ago, I chaperoned my tenth-grade class to Washington, D.C. on their annual five-day field trip. Not only did I lead the trip, but I also had spent the entire year planning and preparing for this adventure. Therefore, the trip entailed:

  • 33 teenage girls
  • 4 chaperones (including me)
  • 1 long-suffering bus driver
  • 1 viewing of National Treasure and Tangled
  • endless fast food
  • 3 1/2 days of walking, walking, walking. And then more walking!
  • 12 monuments (the FDR Memorial was my favorite)
  • 8 museums and visitor centers (including the National Archives, the Capitol, and the Holocaust Museum)
  • more reminders about not slamming hotel doors at 6:30 in the morning than I care to recount

Overall, it was a fun (but absolutely exhausting) trip. I have never slept so well as the night we returned home. And while there are loads of stories I could tell, I'd really like to tell you about the morning we visited Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon is George Washington's gorgeous estate, which is in northern Virginia overlooking the Potomac River. When you stand on the front porch of his mansion, you can look out over the sloping hill to the river beyond, and you completely forget where you are.

While the mansion was beautiful, we were herded through it like cattle to accommodate the huge numbers of tourists. Apparently we'd decided to visit D.C. during prime school visit season, so we had to contend with a group from nearly every other school in the nation. So I appreciated seeing rooms like Washington's bedroom (although I didn't understand the fascination of seeing the bed where he died), but where I really enjoyed myself was in wandering the grounds of the estate.

I found a group of my students watching the sheep. They squealed over the cluster of lambs lounging in the sun, and debated among themselves what to name each one. Luckily they refrained from bleating at the sheep, which is what some other teenagers were doing. You always see a group of kids doing that at farms or living history museums--it's funny, but it's also a commentary on how distanced most kids are from farm animals.

Then I wandered down to the Pioneer Farm, which represents George Washington's innovations in farming techniques. Apparently he grew frustrated with the farming methods used by early Virginian tobacco farmers (this was colonial Virginia, remember), and so he turned to new kinds of plowing, fertilizers, and crop rotation to get the most out of his crops. You don't usually think of Washington as a farmer--he's got that refined, first-leader-of-our-country air about him in all his portraits--but apparently he considered himself a farmer before a commander. When he was away from home, he'd long to get back to Mount Vernon to try out new landscape designs. Landscape design!

It was a gorgeous spring morning, just warm and sunny enough to remind us that summer really is on the way. Walking around the raised beds made me excited to get back to my own garden. And it nurtured that far-away dream I have of an outdoor space that's just for gardening: raised beds, or maybe a plot with neat rows, for tomatoes and spinach and kale and potatoes. All my favorite vegetables. Who knew I'd turn into such a gardening freak?!

And it was fascinating to look around at a recreated 18th-century Virginian farm, complete with old plows (tugged by horses), woven wooden supports for climbing plants, and examples of fencing (yes, he really did experiment with different types of fencing). It's so different from farming today, so much closer to nature, in a way. But I suppose you'd sacrifice efficiency and output for old-fashioned methods.

Perhaps I just got starry-eyed at Mount Vernon, the way I often do with history. It's a struggle for me not to consistently see old methods and techniques as better. But it certainly got me thinking about the overlap between the 18th century and today, and how I can apply some of those more natural methods to my own garden. And that's got to be worth something.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Supposedly delicious

Every now and then I flip through the Williamsburg cookbook, looking for my next culinary adventure, and one of those recipes jumps out at me. You know, the ones that are a little, well, too adventurous.

After the steak and kidney pie disaster, I've become much more hesitant about leaping into the unknown. I'll consider a recipe for a while before taking out my cutting board. But some of the recipes so beloved to colonial Virginians are just too bizarre (or hazardous) for me to even think about making. Take a look and see if you agree.

  • Calf's Head Soup. Yes, it calls for "one Calf's Head." I'd like to avoid courting mad cow disease.

  • Snail Broth. The ingredients sound like your stereotypical witch's brew: twenty garden snails pounded together with the hind legs of thirty frogs, mixed with sliced turnips and leeks. Apparently it cures consumption. Oh, the olden days...

  • Barbecued Squirrel. Unless I want to go all Hunger Games on the squirrels in my backyard, I'll have a tough time procuring the meat.

  • Turtle Soup. Again, I don't know where you'd get a turtle meant for consumption. But the instructions are pretty fun: "Kill the Turtle at Daylight in Summer, the Night before in Winter, and hang it up to bleed." I guess turtles' blood runs differently in winter--which makes sense--but it still sounds like instructions for the aforementioned witch's brew.

  • Bitters (very fine). Yes, it's tempting to try to make my own bitters. But the recipe calls for cochineal, which is an insect that's been pounded to powder. It was used to dye wool red back in the day.

So, would you be brave enough to try one of these recipes? Or do you know where I could procure a turtle (besides the pet store)?